This week, the scientific journal Nature announced National Geographic Explorer Isaiah Nengo’s discovery of a remarkably complete fossil ape skull. The fossil is the skull of an infant that lived about 13 million years ago, and it is the most complete extinct ape skull known in the fossil record to date.
Roughly the size of a lemon, the skull belongs to a newly identified species of early ape named Nyanzapithecus alesi, nicknamed “Alesi” by the team that uncovered it. Some of its features resemble those of today’s living Old World monkeys and apes, and it bears a striking resemblance to today’s infant gibbons.
The remarkable skull is so well preserved, scientists can see the young ape’s unerupted teeth and an impression of its brain. What’s more, N. alesi offers insight into early apes’ brains. With a volume of about seven tablespoons, N. alesi’s brain cavity was more than double that of other Old World monkeys from the same time period.
“We’ve been looking for ape fossils for years — this is the first time we’re getting a skull that’s complete,” said Isaiah Nengo, the De Anza College anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer who led the discovery, funded in part by a National Geographic Society grant.
Nengo’s grant from the National Geographic Society supported his multidisciplinary team as they glimpsed into the early stages of ape evolution at the 13-million-year-old Middle Miocene site of Napudet, Kenya. The work was also supported by The Leakey Foundation and trustee Gordon Getty, the Foothill-De Anza Foundation, the Fulbright Scholars Program, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and the Max Planck Society.